It was a slow burner, that realization of change. A friend of a friend told me that it took her five months to readjust to England after leaving Japan. After returning for Christmas last year, I often joked to friends that it took me twenty-five minutes. But I can see now that I was wrong- the Earth has shifted slightly beneath my feet.
Sometimes the signs are small, as when I instinctively turn bank notes around to face shop staff, and I keep mentally adding value tax to prices. I’m a little more spatially aware as a result of dealing with the crowds of Tokyo and Seoul, and gallingly, my body’s become more susceptible to the cold after Hiroshima’s Indian summer. I’m wearing a jumper in my bedroom right now, which, if you know me at all, is totally out of character. On the other hand, I’ve converted to vegetarianism again without so much as a backward glance.
Other changes are subtle but lasting, like tiny tattoos inked indelibly into hidden skin1. I’m a quieter person than I once was, I think, but more confident in myself. My bank balance is deep ruby red right now, but I threw myself into job interviews with more ease and relaxation than I would’ve done in days past. I’m also more aware that certain Western attitudes that I’d taken for granted are not universal. For example, the looser, more amorphous sense of self in Japanese culture, and the weaker divide between life and death that helps make graveside visits into celebrations. The cohesiveness of Japanese society never fully included me, but it’s a powerful force, and you’re aware of its absence. When I arrived back, I initially felt that home was totally familiar, as though I’d never left, but over time a gentle feeling of alienation has emerged. It’s not exactly a pleasant or unpleasant feeling; it’s difficult to categorise.
All Eyes on the Saint
So here I am, back in Saint Albans- the town i grew up in and have periodically lived in since2. For those of you who don’t know it, a recent journalist who came to write a political biography of the town said it has ‘a powerful sense of eventlessness’3. He’s right. Although a new craft beer bar has opened outside the cathedral, and the tanning salon on the high street was bought by a different tanning salon, the sense of transformation is not exactly palpable.
My hometown was once a place where stuff happened. Before the Roman soldiers arrived, the land just north of my house was Verlamion, ‘the settlement above the marsh’, built on high ground near the River Ver. The king of the Catuvellauni tribe, Tasciovanus, had his royal capital here, and oversaw local trade. Then the Romans came along and did what Romans did, and renamed the site Verulamium. The huge park at the heart of the town shares a name with the old Roman city, and you can still see sections of the amphitheatre and old city wall. It remains one of my favourite places in the world, with its flocking waterbirds and venerable old trees, and woodlands at the back where we used to make fires and get drunk and get off and listen to maudlin emo music when we were teenagers. My hazy adolescent memories revolve around that park. Nonetheless, I reckon we ought to reclaim the original name from the oppressive Roman conquerors. Verlamion all the way.
Saint Alban was England’s first Christian martyr, and in his wake the town became one of the most important and powerful religious centres in Mediaeval Britain. It has a towering, flint-walled cathedral, with a brick tower dating back nine hundred years. We grew up in its shadow- I went to school next door. Saint Albans had the country’s third printing press and was home to Matthew Parris, a chronicler of monastic and secular life in the thirteenth century. But to be honest, it’s been a bit quiet since the Reformation.
These days, Saint Albans is one of those places that is routinely described as ‘leafy’. When the presence of leaves is considered noteworthy in a place, perhaps there ain’t that much to say about it. It’s in the London commuter belt, sixteen minutes from Saint Pancras on a fast train, but it feels a long way from London spiritually speaking. This is exurbia, a kingdom of coffee shops and Le Creuset gift sets, where 63% of people voted to Remain4. It’s the sort of place where people are curious about new ideas without necessarily being shaped much by them. It rolls along in its own way, adding a coffee shop here, losing a music pub there. The town never did value its musical talent, even though it produced Enter Shikari, Friendly Fires and, once upon a time, The Zombies.
Old Town Roads
I like the place more than I used to, in some ways. I’ve perversely enjoyed the biting cold, which I haven’t felt in such a long time. I keep seeing these incredible, high sunsets, which are indefinably different from those in Japan. The reunion with warm brick and ivy and flint and ancient history (personal and national) has been welcome. It’s been good to see my friends and family, and walk familiar streets, and to soak in the social life of the pub again, and watch people be rowdy and freewheeling and open in their opinions. I do get frustrated by Saint Albans’ conservatism and small-town outlook, and I know I’m not destined to stay here long-term, but for the time being, it’s a good place to stop and to think. I didn’t realise how much I needed to do both.
Candidly, 2019 has been the busiest year of my life. When I was arranging my comically excessive digital photo collection last week, I often couldn’t believe some of the photos belonged to the same year. The ones of me on the climbing wall in Yokogawa feel like they date from a different decade, but they were taken this January. Since then, I’ve been a teacher, a camp counsellor, a guesthouse-hopper and an underemployed farmhand. I’ve climbed a mountain in a rainstorm and swum in a lake in the morning mist. I’ve seen Earth’s number one metropolis and walked a goat along a riverbank.
It seems ludicrous to claim burnout when you’re having so much fun, but I think I really did need the time to slow down, read some books and assess where life is at. I wish I didn’t have such a sore bank balance, but we are what we do and I counted my money chickens before they hatched golden yen. So here I am.
1- actually, I have an idea for a real tattoo inspired by the last eighteen months of my life. If I still have the urge in January, when I have a bit more money, I’ll be telling you its story.
2- I was born in London, but London isn’t home for me. It’s too vast and I know too little of it. I know the streets of this town down to the mildly informative blue plaques and busted brick walls.
4- in case you’re reading this from your silicon-alloy information hive or fallout shelter in the year 2135, this refers to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016. The ‘UK’ was a country made up of four nations- in your terms, we know them as the Transdigital Federation of Scotland, the Glorious Kingdom of Dailymailia, the Irradiated Lands To The West Of Which We Cannot Speak, and Northern Ireland.